Writers: Vicky Aracio Casas and Nir Paldi
Director: Nir Paldi
Reviewer: Harry Stern
This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the foundation of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service [LAWRS] in England. It is also nearly five hundred years since Hernán Cortés effected the conquest of Mexico. Cortés garnered the traitorous assistance of his translator/lover Malinche to conquer a land of foreign speaking peoples. The Juana of the play’s title has no such assistance as she sets out to try and conquer the language and cultural differences of her adopted country. Her ultimate failure to do so highlights the plight of the descendants of the union of Malinche and Cortés in London today. It also shows the desperate need for a humanitarian and social service such as that provided by LAWRS.
Yet despite its central concern with the problems faced by the Latin American migrant community, this is not a piece of political polemic. It is a human story about a woman who determinedly struggles to better herself. Following the cold-blooded murder of her boyfriend as a result of the endemic corruption of Mexican society, Juana disappoints her traditional mother by leaving her homeland and making for ‘Londres’. As an innocent at large in a new city and without papers, she is forced to take demeaning work, live in appalling conditions and uncomprehendingly follow the dubious instructions of those out to exploit her, in order to achieve her goals. But she is a woman of spirit and of principle. Both these qualities militate against her as, revolted by the compromises and deceits that she is obliged to contemplate, she ruins her own chances of success.
The play exposes as much about the seamy underbelly of London’s illegitimate workforce as it does about the current political instability in Mexico. In London, seven immigrant women share a bedroom with only four beds – ‘hot bedding’ we are told, with the suggestion of a smile. Mexico is still trying to rid itself of its history of pillage. Neither place comes out of the examination very favourably.
Though billed as a one-person show, there are two consummate artists at work. Aracio Casas is a magnetic performer. She achieves great things speaking English, her second language, and using a dynamic energy and graceful physical storytelling style. She plays virtually all the characters in the story with great aplomb. Men, women, Latin Americans, Europeans appear and disappear on the stage with virtuosic and seamless transition. She switches from ancient Mexican dance to static strap-hanging on the Northern Line in a trice and brings whole worlds with her. Most of all, so much does she endow Juana Gómes Castillo with humanity that she has us rooting for her from the very opening of the piece. Her tragedy is our shame for having complicitly allowed it to happen by our ignorance and lack of attention to her plight and the plight of a million others like her.
The other performance of superb artistry comes from composer/musician Adam Pleeth who plays an intriguing combination of trumpet, guitar, drums and percussion with a sensitivity and skill that astound and a nonchalant air of this being an everyday gig. Not so. This is a really great supporting performance.
Paldi’s direction is unfussy and both design and lighting are minimal which only forces the attention back onto the central performances. This is as it should be. The story of Juana needs to be told as an unvarnished truth. Its historical context only serves to burnish its message about how so little has changed despite the passage of the centuries.
And it is worth buying the programme. Articles on historical, political and social context are fascinating but who can resist a programme that tells you both how to dance Salsa and how to make Salsa?